Mass Effect – Looking Back
Ok so it’s been out on the PC for over a year now. And on the Xbox 360 even longer. But I only just got round to playing Mass Effect, and speaking as someone who has become gradually disillusioned by the RPG genre, I was completely blown away by what is an absolute creative masterpiece. It’s also the first console port I’ve played that isn’t a total, head-spanking mess.
Having been weaned on the proverbial teat of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect was the ideal vehicle for my re-entry into the fantasy saturated world of RPGs. Not a single mention of an elf, a goblin or a magical spell of any kind, which, when you tot up the ratio of fantasy to non-fantasy RPGs and MMORPGs being released, is actually an incredibly refreshing thing to be faced with.
Although not the primary appeal of the game, I was very excited about getting stuck into the combat, as this was the first RPG in some time whose combat wasn’t semi-turn based, with you and your opponent standing in front of each other taking it turns to click the attack button and bop the other with a big sword. Incidentally, this is also why I have never played a single MMO in my entire life. As narrow minded and ill-informed as it might sound, the whole World of Warcraft phenomenon passed me by entirely because it, and others like it, are completely hinged on this dice-roll combat, which usually results in static battles that are very dull to watch. That may seem like a petty reason not to play a game, but I remember feeling incredibly disappointed, angry almost, at how misleading the cinematic trailer for Warhammer Online was. There was a Dwarf breathing fire on hordes of charging Orcs, an Elf ducking and diving in combat with another Orc, some Priestly looking fellow clashing metal with a tall, angsty looking guy, blocking and parrying attacks, growling some incantation that ignites his hammer into flames as his head gets impaled by a mace. “Great”, I mused, “this really captures the raw and gritty spirit of Warhammer”. Wrong. I later discovered after watching a clip of gameplay footage that, once again, combat consists of you standing in front of your opponent, queuing up attacks and abilities, taking it in turns to hit each other.
The idea behind all this is obviously that the battles are supposed to be representative instead of literal, and the focus is on preparation for them; maximising your chances of victory by gaining the right abilities, items and skills beforehand by doing quests and gaining xp. With so much focus on the preparation, however, the battles themselves seem like foregone conclusions and woefully anti-climactic.
Mass Effect, on the other hand, manages to maintain this fundamental role playing format whilst integrating an action-based, third-person shooter mechanism. Although not the first to do it, it blends the two together beautifully, and in spite of the occasionally cretinous AI, it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable system that doesn’t undermine the importance of either preparing for the fight or your own personal skill employed in the fight itself. This formula works perfectly, as much like Deus Ex, it rewards adequate preparation as well as good aim, with both being equally important requisites for victory. Squad management took too much of a back seat, however, with very little direction for your comrades actually being required (with the exception of the occasional remedial request, such as moving out of the way of incoming gunfire).
I can hear the WoW fanboys protesting already, and I do realise that I am making a somewhat tenuous comparison here. But there is really little reason for developers to rigidly stick to this dice-rolling mechanism anymore, especially with APB and Dust 514 on the horizon promising to raise the bar and successfully blend action with role-playing in an MMO context. Don’t get me wrong, I was a huge Neverwinter Nights fan- but I enjoyed it in spite of its combat system, and don’t see any reason to grudgingly cling to this for sentimentality’s sake. With this in mind, is a Mass Effect MMO really that difficult to imagine? If implemented in a similar way to EVE, with varying concentrations of AI controlled ‘police’, then it is perfectly feasible, with no changes to the fundamental principles of the game or the addition of the traditional dice roll-combat being required (hint hint Bioware).
It has been generally agreed that Mass Effect is a great success both critically and financially, but in the year after its release it was still subjected to a continued torrent of criticism, some justified and others not so.
Amongst the most baffling was from Eurogamer’s very own Kristan Reed, where the game was accused of failing to gradually ease the player into the world and prod them in the right direction when things became a little overwhelming . Not only does this show little awareness of science-fiction and of RPGs in general, it criticises the game for something that is actually one of its biggest strengths. Mature players don’t want to be patronised with continuous explanation, exposition or “prodding”. They want to be plunged into the world they are interacting with headfirst and allowed to explore it at their own pace without having the illusion shattered with reminders of what you ‘should’ be doing. That may well turn off the more impatient players, but this isn’t a game about action necessarily- it’s a game about dialogue, narrative and exploration, which Bioware have achieved to near-perfection in almost all of their titles, particularly Mass Effect.
I would, however, be the first to concede that the Mako is probably the stupidest vehicle ever designed in any game. Ever. Seemingly indestructible, it has a mounted gun that can only aim horizontally as well as having the mind boggling ability to climb almost sheer cliff edges with ease. It does some of the most ridiculous things that not only defy gravity, but tell it to fuck off and give it a big kick in the nuts. The side quests became somewhat repetitive after a while, and the DLC has added little in the way of substantial material. These are forgivable flaws, however, as the fully-fleshed out plot, reactive narrative and diverse, detailed characters redeem it spectacularly, and make it one of the most enjoyable titles I have played in years.
It also has a pretty good sex scene. What more could you want?
17 thoughts on “Mass Effect – Looking Back”
Gah! I need to get it too. I’ve been waiting for a sale.
It’s funny, did Kristan Reed review a console version? I recently reread RPS’s Thief 3 special (where they interviewed the lead game designer) and he mentioned that console people like having a direction while PC people like solving things their own way.
Very good read Laurence and welcome to the staff :D
Sorted out the images by the way so the text should be easier to read for everyone :)
This can be very true; its also a misconception. Game systems with randomness, especially combat, can feel very dull compared to something skill-based when there are literally thousands of die rolls. The problem is, these thousands of die rolls boil down to a recognizable bell curve quickly, and in the case of MMOGs, the balancing act usually just involves flattening the top and widening the middle of the curve until their might as well be no dice at all.
Randomness works well when there is less of it. It can serve to provide NPCs with a bit of spontaneity, where they would otherwise be completely predictable and exploitable. In properly random combat, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and as one side or the other gets lucky or get unexpectedly spanked, they have to adjust their tactics and/or strategy (leading to more important decisions, thus more gameplay).
So really, the statement is a criticism of misused behind the scenes die rolls. WoW raids, if everyone is speced right and no one makes a mistake, go off the same way with the same people every time. Compare that to a properly random game, like Microsoft’s Close Combat titles, and there is a big difference.
Excellent piece Laurence! As for Mass Effect I think I’ll be giving it a try myself at last. Somehow it just keeps getting knocked down the list :P
On that note, it’s 10% off on Steam at the moment for anyone inspired to get it themselves!
I think the problem I have with RPGs like WoW is the queing of attacks, if I am playing a game with some action it, I want everything to happen quickly, as soon as I click to attack.
Still never got around to playing Mass Effect, I think the setting puts me off. An RPG like Fallout 3 is much more in my style :D
Don’t pass on this game because you’re not really into the Sci-Fi setting. I didn’t like Sci-Fi games myself, but after buying Mass Effect that changed completely. Trust me, it will surprise you.
Hmm maybe…can you find me the hours I would need to invest in the game then to really enjoy it? :D
What I meant was that there is too much emphasis on the preparation for a battle. For example, in a hypothetical encounter in WoW, a level 80 character would rarely lose to a level 20 character, even if the player in control of the level 80 character was an absolute mong, since the combat consists of clicking the attack button, ability/spell button etc and queuing them. If an MMO was made with the same mechanics of Mass Effect, however, then the same hypothetical encounter may have a different outcome, even with such a power difference in the characters. Still unlikely, but certainly more possible if the player in control of the level 20 or equivalent character had sufficient skill and the one in control of the level 80 character couldn’t aim for shit.
Like if I played Mass Effect drunk (which I did a few times) I could still potentially lose to a low level enemy even if my weapons and stats were uber high, just because my aim would suck balls.
The other big thing is I’m quite puerile in that I want combat to look really cool and make me go “woooow badaaassss!”. And the combat in WoW, WAR and Aion etc not only doesn’t do that, but actually makes me think “that is so lame. like really really lame”. That’s just my opinion though, obviously some people can tolerate it, or even enjoy watching the combat, but for me it’s not visually impressive enough. Like I said though, I really enjoyed Neverwinter Nights. I’m not all about action, promise :)
Yes it was the Xbox review. That certainly is an interesting point, although I”m sure our console cousins would bitterly disagree.
After being initially not at all interested, then starting to play it and not being particularly impressed, I found myself warming rapidly to Mass Effect. Then I played it through properly, and somehow, out of nowhere, it became one of my favourite games in ages. An absolutely exemplary example of how to create a deftly paced, subtly complex yet still accessible and glossy current-gen game.
Well Chris, it’s just like the re-imagined serie of Battlestar Galactica. Even if you detest Sci-Fi in general, it’s a must watch. The setting doesn’t matter, it’s the amazing quality and production values that do it.
While I agree wholeheartedly with almost everything you’ve written, I do have one contention: you describe the AI as “occasionally cretinous AI” On the contrary, I found Mass Effect to have some of the best AI I’ve ever seen in a game, particularly your party’s AI. In most games where you are given AI-controlled assistants, I find myself in short order cursing the worthlessness of my ‘aids’ and wishing wholeheartedly for a co-op option so I might have a useful teammate. Contrast this with Mass Effect (which would also, in my mind, have benefited from a Co-op option, but that’s just because co-op is ALWAYS MORE FUN.), where I found myself frequently uttering “Nice shot Garrus!” or “Whew, good thing Wrex got Immunity up to take some hits – almost died there”. The fact that I had come to not only utilize by AI compatriots but rely upon that was absolutely mindblowing for me. I can’t think of any other game where I’ve been so thoroughly pleased by the quality of my AI allies.
As well, I’m glad you mention the travesty that is the Mako. Too many reviews, I’ve found, gloss over the frustration of the Mako segments, which take up a good third of the game. Did you ever play the game on the Xbox 360? If not, you are quite lucky – if you think the PC version’s Mako was bad….*shudder*. I had originally played Mass Effect on Xbox 360, but I quit because the Mako segments were so mind-blowingly BAD. Despite its flaws, the PC version’s Mako is a massive improvement, trust me.
All in all, I can’t wait for Mass Effect 2.
…CURSES. It deleted all my nice spacing. >=|
I had only played a bit of Mass Effect before my 360 died, but reading your retrospective persuaded me to pick it up for the PC.
About 3 hours in and rather impressed with it so far. My only fear is over how different replays of the game will be. Hopefully the intimidate and charm options will create enough varied branches off the storyline to make it enjoyable the second (or third) run through.
My own experience on Xbox 360 marked it after a few hours as an obvious.. Ego-feed. It was designed to make you feel like the powerful hero despite your choices being more of a binary between two glowing buttons than any kind of deep emotional or intellectual investment. It felt more like an interactive film where I was allowed to control the shooting, the looting and some distinct ‘good or evil?!’ choices.
I reached the snowy planet where you drive a long combat run with the mako and just.. Left it there. I was bored to my core already.
Perhaps Fallout, Deus Ex, Planescape and System Shock 2 just spoiled me.
Then again, the KOTOR games made me want to cut out my eyes, secondarily to cutting out the eyes of those who made it.
And a further note; Aliens with American accents never cease to infuriate, or at the least completely deconstruct any semblance of an atmosphere.
District 9 didn’t need the aliens to have American accents.. Why Mass Effect? >.>